On the anniversary of his appointment as Shrewsbury Town manager, Paul Hurst explains to Adam Bate how he took the club from bottom of League One to top of the table.
Exactly one year ago, Shrewsbury Town were bottom of the table and contemplating the inevitable. Competing in League One had been a tough task at the best of times. And these were far from the best of times. The team had lost five in a row and failed to win any of the five games before that. Micky Mellon had just been sacked and confidence was shot.
“We were setting up negatively, just trying not to lose, and there was so little entertainment on offer for the fans,” recalls Chris Wynne, joint-chair of the Shrewsbury Town supporters’ parliament. “Crowds were starting to fall away. I even knew season ticket holders who stopped going to games early in the season.” Relegation seemed only a matter of time.
But Shrewsbury survived on the penultimate weekend. Twelve months on and the pre-season favourites for the drop are not only top of League One but also the only unbeaten team in the Football League. Bristol Rovers were thrashed 4-0 last week before a late winner against Fleetwood Town on Saturday took them 10 points clear of Bradford City in third.
“Two words explain how we turned things around,” Wynne tells Sky Sports. “Paul Hurst.”
There were plenty of people who were surprised when Hurst took the job. The now 43-year-old coach had pedigree down the leagues having won promotions with Ilkeston Town and Boston United before getting Grimsby back into the Football League. After five years, he seemed settled there but sensed potential at Shrewsbury. He was soon doubting himself.
“In many ways, it didn’t make sense,” Hurst tells Sky Sports. “I can remember sitting in the office with my assistant Chris Doig and wondering whether we had done the right thing. I did not expect to be coming in to a group of players who were on top of the world, jumping around and full of confidence but it did seem a very strange and strained atmosphere.
“The squad I inherited was on the experienced side, shall we say, and there were a few of them who had played higher up for so-called bigger clubs. Something certainly was not right. But thankfully we managed to get things going. Now, I think there is a lot more appreciation of what it means to be playing for Shrewsbury Town.”
In a recent Soccer Saturday interview, Hurst spoke about the team's run
Before all that, Hurst’s first job was to keep the club in the division. He would not be able to wait until the January window to make an impact. At first, he focused on getting players fitter and rebuilding confidence. His preferred 4-4-2 formation was tricky to implement with the club’s only genuine winger injured but he decided to keep the message simple.
“They’d had a lot of changes in the previous 15 games in looking to find something that worked,” says Hurst. “I knew from speaking to them that they were not sure what they would be doing from game to game because they were changing for the opposition. I think it was a relief for them to get the message that this is us and this is what we do.”
In those early months, Hurst had to get the best from the players he had. “I think that was the fear,” he says. “That we would be cut adrift before we could make any changes.” They finished the year still in the relegation zone but within a point of safety. Eight players left that January and eight more came in.
Hurst learnt a thing or two from his non-league days. He had listened with bemusement to the disparaging comments about the standard of football. “Sometimes people would be very disrespectful about it,” he says. “If you have not experienced it, it is easy to look down on it or dismiss it. Having been there, I knew there were some good players.”
That January, he brought in Aristote Nsiala, a player he knew from his Grimsby days. The defender would go on to make a big impact. Hurst has since been reunited with John Nolan, another ex-Grimsby man, and signed James Bolton from Gateshead. Current top scorer Stefan Payne, 26, had started only one league game before joining Shrewsbury in January.
“I always felt that there were players who could come in and make the step up,” says Hurst. “Thankfully, success is not just to do with the money that you spend, it is about the work on the training ground and getting value for money when you do spend. We have perhaps brought in a different type of player to the ones that other clubs at our level would target.”
Highlights of Shrewsbury's Sky Bet League One win over Bristol Rovers
Shrewsbury haven’t just relied on non-league hunger. The eagerness of young academy talent has been a factor too. Carlton Morris and Ben Godfrey have come in on loan from Norwich and both have impressed. The upshot is that a club that had 10 points from 15 games a year ago, now has 37 points at the same stage of this season.
For the fans, the excitement is overwhelming. Shrewsbury have not played at Championship level for almost 30 years. “I doubted whether I’d ever be able to see us competing at the second tier of English football in my lifetime again,” says Wynne. “To keep us up last season with the players he inherited and the position we were in was a minor miracle in itself.
“I don’t think even the most optimistic fan would have predicted the start we have made. To be honest, we are all still pinching ourselves and trying to keep our feet on the ground. Luckily Paul Hurst seems to be doing a great job of doing that with the players and I think that is part of our success and why we are doing so well.”
When it comes to keeping players grounded, it is difficult to imagine there are too many coaches better at it than Hurst. “I describe myself as a realist,” he says. “Others say I am a pessimist. People would definitely say I see a glass as half empty.” If those around him are getting carried away, it only makes him more determined to remain level-headed.
Indeed, it is the recurring theme of our 40-minute conversation. Is he a bit surprised by the start? “No,” he replies. “I’m majorly surprised.” Thoughts on that 4-0 win? “It is unusual for us to score that many,” he says. “I doubt it’ll happen again. “Results are described as “ridiculous” and when asked about the ambitions for the season, the delivery is deadpan.
“We should not be in a position now where we end up worrying about relegation,” he says.
Players have become accustomed to hearing their manager say that they will probably lose this week or declaring that they are not that good. “Once they get to know me it is fine but some of the new players do take a bit of time to get my sense of humour,” Hurst admits. “Even some of the staff are surprised by what comes out of my mouth.”
Highlights of Shrewsbury's Sky Bet League One win over Fleetwood
It is easy to wonder whether this is all just a tactic, but Hurst insists that is not the case. “I don’t think I’m playing it down unfairly,” he says. “If I was at Wigan or Blackburn and playing it down, that would be different. In that case you are just trying to control expectation. But I don’t think there is any expectation on us. We are the surprise package and enjoying it.
“We know there will be tougher times ahead and it will be how we react to them. That is where I will have to come into my own and make sure I manage that situation properly. I have been having to keep the players’ feet on the ground. It may be the opposite down the line and I have to lift them. We are just trying to delay that moment for as long as possible.”
That Hurst is ready to switch roles is revealing. He is not dour. Indeed, he speaks with genuine pride about the achievements of his players and is animated when discussing his “brilliant” staff and the backing he has received from the chairman. He does not feel his side has been lucky and insists they have yet to face a team that deserves to have beaten them.
This is just a good manager attempting to navigate his way through an unexpected situation. He knows the opportunity is there and appreciates that, for all his achievements and a win percentage of over 50 per cent in a managerial career that is already approaching 500 games, his best chance of managing in the Championship might be by getting there himself.
He recalls a similar emotion in his playing days when he enjoyed back-to-back promotions with Rotherham. “The first was expected but the second one to the Championship certainly was not,” he says. “I can remember some games where you’d come off wondering how we had won. But we had something about us. We had that team spirit and we kept on a roll.
“I was always writing permutations and working out the fixtures but I never had us going up. Maybe that’s just me.” Maybe it is. But could the outcome be the same 17 years on nevertheless? “I will leave the dreaming to others,” he adds. He might not be a dreamer. But thanks to Paul Hurst, Shrewsbury Town’s supporters are living the dream.